Stonehaven and the Bluebirds

By bellmannews / January 10, 2021
bus with bluebird logo

A History of Stonehaven’s buses by Callum Fraser

For many years I have had a strong interest in buses, dating back to when I first took notice as a young child of the predominant Alexanders blue bus fleet and the contrasting olive green buses of Aberdeen Corporation.

Alexanders buses had the almost romantic appeal of travelling far and wide across the North East and beyond, taking you to far flung destinations across Scotland, whereas the Corporation double deckers were more functional and had to keep strictly within the city boundaries. After moving to Stonehaven from Aberdeen my focus was on the Alexanders blue buses operating from the two depots in Arbuthnott Place and Barclay Street.

Humble Origins

Alexanders were not a local company, and were originally based in Falkirk, starting up as a small cycle shop in the early 1900s, migrating into motor transport and buses during a 20-year expansion process. W. Alexander & Sons, its full name, rose to become the largest bus company in Scotland and is a name synonymous with bus services in the Stonehaven area. For almost 60 years, from the 1930s until 1991, this company provided both local and long distance services, from their centrally based depot in Barclay Street. The Alexander empire eventually covered an area of Scotland in a line from Glasgow north to Inverness and eastwards to Fife and Aberdeen. Their almost meteoric growth during that time was not unlike the bus deregulation activities in the 1980s which led to the monopolies of companies such as Stagecoach and Firstbus today. During the 1920s in the Stonehaven and Aberdeen areas, there were a number of small companies, often only operating one route. Most of these were absorbed in the rapid expansion of Alexanders northwards in the 1930s

Alexanders dominant position in Scotland was reinforced in 1929, when they became part of the Scottish Motor Traction Group (SMT), creating a huge bus service monopoly covering the whole of Scotland. Although it was not widely recognised at the time, SMT was actually owned by the 2 main railway companies of that era, the LNER and LMS, but the bus companies operated quite autonomously, even though they were competing with the railways on some routes. The original Alexanders also had a bus building subsidiary, which was then able to produce and sell buses to the whole of the SMT group across Scotland. This meant that Scotland’s buses developed an identity all of their own, being different in style to their English counterparts. Occasionally an English operator would order a batch of buses from Alexanders, but in the main they mostly stayed in Scotland for all of their working lives, which often exceeded 20 years.

Bus Spotting

Like other companies, Alexanders gave each of their buses an individual fleet number, creating a number of different classes denoting each individual type. The coding system was created in 1932, using letters and numbers, denoted by cast iron fleet plates affixed to each bus. Similarly each bus carried a separate plate indicating its home depot. The fleet numbers had letters, for each type of bus, and a unique number. The letter denoted each separate type, for example, Leyland Tigers were P, Leyland Cheetahs K, Daimlers D, AECs A, Bedfords W, Guys G, with various other distinct classes. Double deckers had a range of classes, all beginning with R. This well organised sense of order was maintained for at least 60 years. Depot codes used letters, such as, Aberdeen A, Stonehaven S, Montrose M, Arbroath Ah, Forfar Fr, Dundee D, and so on.

The system must have been invaluable in the organisation and maintenance of the bus fleet, but what it also did was to give rise to a popular hobby of bus spotting across a wide area of Scotland. Groups of boys, maybe some girls too, could  be seen at bus depots and garages looking to catch sight of yet another bus they hadn’t seen before, with the relevant information recorded in well thumbed notebooks. I still have the one I used in the early 60s, with page after page filled with lists of numbers. Most people just take a bus or coach for granted, but the keen eye of the bus spotter will recognise all sorts of subtle differences between different types. Maybe we were geeks, but the word hadn’t been invented back then.

The Bluebird is born

An important and well known trademark of Alexanders was the Bluebird logo, signifying an element of luxury, particularly where the longer distance coach and touring services were concerned. For promotional purposes in the mid 1930s, it was initially applied to the coach and touring fleet as opposed to the normal everyday buses, although its adoption and use increased over time. For many years this logo adorned the buses operating out of Stonehaven depot, and became the common name in the area for the buses of the time, more often known as Bluebirds. This symbol lives on today, having been adopted as the trademark of the Stagecoach subsidiary based in Aberdeen, so it must have had some powerful properties of recognition and public awareness.

1950s Bluebird coach

Evolution and Expansion

In prewar Stonehaven the consolidation of Alexander’s services had a beneficial effect on the town’s development, creating a reliable and efficient service between Stonehaven and Aberdeen, allowing the adoption of daily commuting with its subsequent effects on housing and the overall community. Car ownership was only for the wealthier members of society in those days. Alexanders enjoyed great success after the Second World War. As roads improved and services expanded, business boomed in the post war years which are often referred to as the ‘golden era’ for public transport. In the Stonehaven area local routes were improved with extra services to inland rural areas such as Auchenblae, Netherley, Banchory Devenick and Durris, although more often than not these services only ran on market days and occasional Saturdays. A Friday service to Mergie Road was still running in the early 60s, but increasing car ownership led to the demise of these services with diminishing passenger numbers. A twice weekly service also ran to Banchory during the summer season, and a range of daily tours to Deeside and beyond were offered to tempt the large numbers of visitors to venture further afield.

Local and Long Distance

The longer distance services were greatly expanded, primarily on the Aberdeen to Dundee route, providing a half hourly service between Aberdeen and Stonehaven, in conjunction with the hourly Dundee services. These services were at their peak during the 1950s, gradually declining with the expansion of car ownership in the 1960s. Stonehaven depot assumed a greater importance at that time and was responsible for operating a large share of the Aberdeen to Dundee services. As a result, it is likely that the Alexanders depot was one of, if not the biggest single employer in Stonehaven for many years, being a major contributor to the economy of the town. Many of the employees, both drivers and conductors, had long periods of service, some for almost their entire working lives.

It was common in those days to see fully laden buses leaving Stonehaven for Aberdeen, and up until the mid-60s, up to 3 double deckers would leave Stonehaven every morning on the early morning commuter services. Another important service provided for many years were the school runs, transporting pupils to and from Mackie Academy every day. The Kincardineshire catchment area ran from Cove Bay in the north to St. Cyrus in the south and inland to Laurencekirk, Auchenblae and Netherley. Even in the most severe winter weather the school buses somehow managed to find a way through to get the pupils to and from school. It may have taken longer but they got there in the end.

Longer distance limited stop services to Glasgow and Edinburgh were also developed, calling at Stonehaven and offering low cost return fares of just over a pound, very much cheaper than the railways. Journey times were more than double that of the trains, at almost 7 hours in the 1950s, and included a refreshment stop at the old Dundee ice rink. These ran daily during the summer and on Saturdays for the rest of the year. Scottish Citylink and Megabus operate similar services today. For many years the influx of summer visitors could not have taken place without convoys of Alexanders buses bringing large numbers of people from the central belt of Scotland to places like Stonehaven for their “Fair” fortnights every weekend, creating great benefits to the local economy.

Fleet Changes

At the time when bus services were at their peak in the post war era, the majority of buses were of pre-war vintage, built by Alexanders in the traditional half-cab front engine design. The driver had his own separate cab and the conductor or conductress was in charge of the passengers.  Many of these survived in service for over 20 years until the early 1960s and even had second lives with fairground show operators, travelling all over Scotland for quite a few years after. Many were also bought by contractors or large farms to transport their workers.

Alexanders buses were renowned for their longevity. However, after the war, the fleet was in urgent need of modernisation, with many pre-war buses still being used for front-line services. Higher capacity front entrance vehicles with underfloor engines started to appear in the mid-50s and these were quickly put to use on the lucrative routes 10 and 11 between Aberdeen and Dundee. Route 11 was the major service on the coast route through Montrose and Arbroath, with route 10 serving the inland towns via Brechin and Forfar. Alternate journeys between Brechin and Forfar were routed via Finavon or Aberlemno, giving the journey an element of variety. The older pre-war buses were gradually sold or relegated to more local duties.

old and new

The modern buses were welcomed by the staff, with benefits such as power steering, synchromesh gearboxes, and automatic doors. The older half cabs with sliding doors were disliked by conductors as they were heavy and difficult to operate. Not having a separate cab meant that the driver could easily control the operation of the door in the new buses just by pressing a switch. Driving at that time required considerable physical effort and timing of the “crash” gearboxes required great skill to avoid embarrassing metallic crunching noises. Drivers nowadays seem to sit in a virtual cockpit full of controls and switches.

Gradual Evolution

With railway nationalisation in 1947, the SMT group also passed into public ownership, but this was largely transparent to its customers, and Alexanders and its counterparts made significant contributions to the public coffers during the expansive years of the 1950s. At that time the buses also provided a very popular service delivering parcels across its network, with the luggage compartments often filled with boxes and objects of varying sizes to be dropped off at various stops en-route. The office beside the stance on Barclay Street could get very busy at times with the receipt and processing of parcel consignments. Also, on the longer routes at that time it was not uncommon for some passengers and conductors to be on first name terms, due to their regular meetings on each journey. Many of those were the erstwhile commercial travellers or sales reps of the time, before company cars arrived on the scene, who had to travel by bus to meet their customers.

The Empire starts to split

The inexorable growth of car ownership through the 60s caused a gradual decline in bus passenger numbers, so savings had to be made and some routes were cut back, or abandoned, and services reduced in frequency. Although it took longer to happen than in some areas, the writing was on the wall for the conductor, with moves towards one person operation where the driver also took the fares as passengers boarded the bus, which of course had the negative effect of increasing journey times.

Prior to that, a major change took place in 1961, when the decline of the Alexanders hegemony was set in motion, splitting up into 3 autonomous regions, Northern, from Dundee to the north, Fife, and Midland, from Glasgow to Perth. The blue Alexanders livery of the buses in Stonehaven which had lasted more than 30 years, was replaced by the new bright yellow of the Northern area. In addition the traditional Alexanders name was replaced by a Northern logo on the sides of all the buses.

Usually on a Friday evening a freshly painted bus was driven empty from the paint shop in Aberdeen and parked on Cameron Street just up from the white bridge, waiting for collection by a driver from one of the depots further south. The standard of finish was perfect and in their freshly painted bright yellow colours, the buses looked like new again. At the time the change felt like the end of an institution, but for many years after the buses were still referred to locally as Alexanders. Old habits took a long time to change. The blue livery was retained by the Midland region and Fife adopted a striking red colour in place of the blue.

For whatever reason, although Alexanders provided many services to and from Stonehaven, they chose to ignore the local market, leaving the Brickfield bus run to other smaller operators. For many years, following the establishment of the Brickfield housing estate, this was operated by Mitchells Garage, using a succession of small second hand buses. This eventually passed on to Invercarron Motors who ran it for several years until their bus expired and Northern chose to adopt it in the early 70s.

With the withdrawal of the last of the old half cab buses in the early 1970s, came the demise of another institution, the conductor or clippie, when the move to one person operation was completed. This was a cathartic time for Stonehaven depot as the remaining conductresses were made redundant, some of whom had worked there for many years.

Even more change

Other major moves were afoot when the old Alexanders territories were split up even further, and  a new Strathtay Scottish company was created through reorganisation of the Scottish Bus Group in preparation for deregulation of the bus industry in 1986, and eventual privatisation. It inherited the eastern operations of Alexanders (Midland) based in Perth, Crieff, Blairgowrie and Pitlochry, as well as the southern operations of Alexanders (Northern) in Dundee, Forfar, Arbroath and Montrose.

A bright blue and orange livery was adopted for the fleet, which was controlled from Dundee. This was the beginning of the end of the old-established through routes 10 and 11 to Dundee as it led to Montrose being the southern end of the Northern territory. Stonehaven depot began to assume less importance as a result, with the inevitable reduction of staff numbers and bus allocation.

The Stagecoach arrives

Other more ominous happenings were signalled by the Government’s desire to privatise the Scottish bus industry, following the precedents already set in England. A momentous event, hardly noticed at the time, took place in 1980 when a small bus company with a few second hand buses started to operate in Perth. This was destined to grow into the mighty Stagecoach company, first seen in Stonehaven when it started to operate a daily overnight express service between Aberdeen and London using 2 leased high capacity double deck coaches offering ridiculously low fares.

London bus

At first it was very much a family run operation with the sandwiches for sale on the journey being made by the mother of the two joint brother and sister owners. In a relatively short time Stagecoach grew to be a major operator of bus services all over England, having bought up many large old-established companies in a major privatisation process. Being based in Perth it was logical that it should also extend its influence in Scotland so eventually, in 1991, it bought the Northern company for £5.7 million.

Since then, various initiatives and promotional exercises have taken place to stem the tide of decline in passenger numbers, but like elsewhere it is difficult to challenge the convenience of the car when compared with public transport. Although there have been many changes, at least there is a strong link with the past – the famous Bluebird logo and name was retained by Stagecoach for its coaches in NE Scotland.

The Bluebird heritage and all its memories from the heyday of Alexanders lives on, with its links to the golden age of the blue buses which used to be such a large part of the Stonehaven landscape. Long may it last.

Callum Fraser
December 2020

Ali Brown - January 10, 2021

What a another great well written story by the author CallumFraser,
A great reminder of our local history. Thanks for the memories.

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